Jonathan Biss and The Curtis Institute of Music Partner with Coursera for a Massive Open Online Course on Beethoven

02.21.13
Jonathan Biss

Biss Releases Beethoven Sonatas Volume 2 on March 12, 2013

Biss Continues His Successful Schumann: Under the Influence Project, Including Carnegie Hall Performances
 

This fall, The Curtis Institute of Music partners with Coursera--the leading provider of "massive online open courses" (MOOCs)--to offer two classical-music-performance courses to the worldwide online community. Jonathan Biss, 2001 Curtis alumnus and piano faculty member since 2011, will teach the first Curtis-Coursera course, focused on Beethoven's piano sonatas. Biss will give video lectures, and students will engage in interactive homework assignments and peer review workshops. Biss is especially close to this subject of Beethoven's sonatas, as he will soon release Volume 2 of a decade-long project to record all of the pieces. The endeavor began when Biss turned 30, and will end when he turns 40. This season, Biss performs several solo and chamber music recitals as part of his unique Schumann: Under the Influence project in Minneapolis, Philadelphia, Boston, San Francisco, Kansas City, and New York City, among others. The March 12, 2013 CD release date finds Biss performing at Carnegie Hall's Zankel Hall. 

Biss's Curtis-Coursera course will be called "Exploring Beethoven's Piano Sonatas." In the course description, Biss writes:

Our relationship to Beethoven is a deep and paradoxical one. For many musicians, he represents a kind of holy grail: His music has an intensity, rigor, and profundity which keep us in its thrall, and it is perhaps unequalled in the interpretive, technical, and even spiritual challenges it poses to performers. At the same time, Beethoven’s music is casually familiar to millions of people who do not attend concerts or consider themselves musically inclined. Two hundred years after his death, he is everywhere in the culture, yet still represents its summit. This course takes an inside-out look at the 32 piano sonatas from the point of view of a performer. Each lecture will focus on one sonata and an aspect of Beethoven’s music exemplified by it. (These might include: the relationship between Beethoven the pianist and Beethoven the composer; the critical role improvisation plays in his highly structured music; his mixing of extremely refined music with rougher elements; and the often surprising ways in which the events of his life influenced his compositional process and the character of the music he was writing.) The course will feature some analysis and historical background, but its perspective is that of a player, not a musicologist. Its main aim is to explore and demystify the work of the performer, even while embracing the eternal mystery of Beethoven’s music itself.

It is not necessary to have studied an instrument or to have any knowledge of music theory to take the course. Rather, it is designed for students of all backgrounds who have a desire to learn more about Beethoven and his world. Biss also notes, "I am so thrilled to be working with Curtis on this new endeavor. As a musician, whether I'm performing, rehearsing, teaching, or even just listening, my greatest joy -- the whole point, really -- is in sharing music. I am enormously grateful to Curtis for the incomparable education I received there, and for the constant creative stimulation I find in working with its students today. But now, through Coursera, I have the opportunity to connect with students and lovers of music on a scale I never imagined was possible. As much as I cherish the one-on-one interaction I have with the students within Curtis's walls, I find this opportunity to share that experience with people the world over incredibly exciting."

Classes offered by Coursera are presented free of charge and are designed to help the student master the material. A key factor in the design of the Coursera system is the extensive use of interactive exercises. Within videos, there are multiple opportunities for interactions: the video frequently stops, and students are asked to answer a simple question to test whether they are tracking the material. There will also be stand-alone homework that is not part of video lectures. Students can watch Biss's lectures at their leisure, but the classes are structured with regular deadlines and each student will receive a statement of accomplishment at the end of the series. 

A second course, tentatively entitled "From The Repertoire: A Study of Western Music History Through Performance," will be offered during the 2013-14 school year. This will be taught by Jonathan Coopersmith, a conductor and Chair of Musical Studies, and by David Ludwig, 2001 Curtis alumnus and a renowned composer who is currently the 20/21 Ensemble Artistic Director, and Gie and Lisa Liem Artistic Chair of Performance Studies at Curtis. Although hundreds of musicians apply each year, Curtis admits only enough students to fill the places of the previous graduating class. With an acceptance rate of 3.2 percent, Curtis is ranked the most selective college-level institution in the United States by U.S. News and World Report (2012 edition, based on 2010–11 admissions statistics). The collaboration with Coursera will bring Curtis's appreciation of and investment in concert music to learners around the world. 

On March 12, 2013, Onyx releases Beethoven Piano Sonatas Volume 2. Volume 1 was released in January 2012. The new disc contains Beethoven's Piano Sonatas Nos. 4, 14 ("Moonlight"), 24, and Fantasy in G minor, which Biss believes Beethoven intended to be a companion piece to Sonata No. 24. In the album's liner notes, Biss writes that the relationship between these sonatas may not be easily found. They do, however, "demonstrate that the form of the sonata--the idea of the sonata--is large and mutable enough to accommodate history's most restless and relentless musical imagination, over and over again, no matter his mood or his priorities of the moment." From the monumental No. 4 to the iconic No. 14--the first movement of which Biss describes as "perhaps the most surreal, suspended rumination Beethoven ever wrote"--to the earthy No. 24, Volume 2 of Biss's Beethoven project shows the pianist at his best. 

Biss is also the author of the recent Kindle Single A Pianist Under the Influence, published by Rosetta Books. Eschewing traditional biography and dense musical criticism, Biss writes a moving tribute to Schumann, one of the most "vulnerable" composers. As Biss ends his piece, "I am overcome with the irrational desire that [Schumann] knows just what his music has offered me, and secret listeners everywhere. Not only solace, but fulfillment, self-expression, self-knowledge. His communication of his innermost self is, ironically, the most extraordinary act of generosity. I could never repay it." The work is available here. Biss previously wrote Beethoven's Shadow, a personal introduction to the music of Beethoven. Beethoven's Shadow, also available as a Kindle Single, can be found here

The recent Kindle Single is just one piece of Biss's season-long project, Schumann: Under the Influence. With more than 30 performances throughout Europe and North America over an eight-month span, Schumann: Under the Influence is an unprecedented exploration of the composer's role in musical history. Biss and several hand-picked collaborators will perform Schumann's work, music by his notable influences such as Beethoven, Schubert and Purcell, and selections from his long list of successors ranging from Berg and Janácek to 27-year-old composer Timothy Andres. At the core of the project is four sets of concerts, curated by Biss, including series at Wigmore Hall, the Concertgebouw, Carnegie Hall, San Francisco Performances, and The Friends of Chamber Music in Kansas City. The full concert schedule can be found here. Additionally, Biss wrote about Schumann for NPR Music earlier this season. Those posts and interviews can be found here